Substance with style

Take a look at the university spaces that have met functional challenges with sleek solutions, with Ella Taylor as your guide

New construction and refurbishment projects at universities are more ambitious than ever, with campus development teams looking to satisfy long lists of user needs. Students could want a group study area sometimes and a private desk with great connectivity at other times. Researchers may need space for specialised equipment. Courses involving performances might demand a space with great acoustics. Estates may need to improve their accessibility or energy efficiency… 

The list goes on, with every room and facility dictating its own specifications. But the best facilities are those that deliver must-have features with flair, rather than a mere sense of duty.

Attracting audiences

The Venue at Leeds College of Music (LCoM), for example, is a modern rooftop concert hall that seats 350 guests. Construction is starting on a large balcony extension that will add a bar and catering facilities for visitors, plus a sleek glass frontage with golden louvres that offers audiences city skyline views with their interval refreshments. It will also add new breakout spaces. David Warren, director of operations, says that LCoM “always wanted to make good” on the fact that such spaces were lacking in the original venue when it was built in 2002.

“It’s about giving that inspiring welcome to visitors and customers as well as being functional,” says Warren. “So it’s not just about being a glass box on top of a building, it’s about an inspiring, cutting-edge design that will be attractive to people as well.”

The Venue is predominantly for student activities such as performances by student orchestras, choirs, other performers, exams and workshops with industry practitioners. The team decided not to change the main performance space itself, because the acoustics and offering there were already good. Instead, they wanted to improve the audience experience with this extra social space, hoping to make it “a destination in its own right,” says Warren. Perhaps more professional artists (The Venue has already hosted some) or even conference organisers will be tempted to hold events in the attractive and creative space, which architects Group Ginger have likened to a piano bar or lounge in New York.

“Another consideration was our place in the city and its cultural quarter,” Warren says of The Venue’s design aesthetic. 

As tenants in the building, LCoM needed a look that was sympathetic to the space below, the glass-fronted BBC. It needed “something that doesn’t jar with the glass façade of the main building underneath,” Warren says. “So it had to have a link to that. It could look different but it needed to not detract from that space beneath.”

LCoM has invested heavily in its facilities and their architectural design over time, so worked hard with the design and engineering teams to solve this problem. In the end, continuing the gold, black and zinc theme and curtain-wall glazing of the building’s prominent street entrance satisfied the teams and the council planning department, and is beginning to go up now.

Leeds College of Music Sketch

Inspiring and accessible

At the other end of the construction journey, the University of Leeds recently completed a £3.9m refurbishment and extension of the Institute of Transport Studies (ITS) building. It transformed a Victorian building into a modern and flexible learning environment to accommodate growing numbers of undergraduate, masters, PhD and post-doctoral students and researchers from around the world. These students 

needed an inclusive and sustainable environment for their collaborative work and research. The space delivered is inspiring and fresh, in keeping with a faculty that boasts strong industry links and modern tech such as an advanced driving simulator among its offerings.

“We could see that the existing building would benefit from an upgrade in fixtures and fittings along with the sensitive restoration of unique original rooms and features,” the facilities team explain. 

“The challenge of the refurbishment was to maintain as many of the existing features as possible such as ornate cornices, ceiling roses and in many areas the large profiled skirting boards and door architraves.”

New lighting and heating, plus work to improve the thermal performance of the roof, windows and basement boosted the energy efficiency of the building. 

As well as the refurbishment, demolishing a single-storey lecture theatre freed up space for the three-storey extension. 

This provides social space, three teaching rooms (which are convertible into one space), and a research cluster, as well as lift access to most floors in the new and original areas, improving ITS’s accessibility for all. 

“The extension was designed to complement the existing terraced building but not to adopt the aesthetic of a simple pitched roof extension,” say the facilities team. The cuboid shape and contemporary windows built are as the original designs specified, “although the original choice of blue engineering brick façade was not preferred by the planners, hence the choice of the red brick, which still provides a ‘crisp’ response to the old bricks of the existing fabric.”

Leeds College of Music

Beauty and brains

Elsewhere, Cardiff University’s Innovation Campus is transforming a disused railway yard into a state-of-the art research space. The campus includes the already built Hadyn Ellis medical research building and the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC). 

Planning has also been approved for two new buildings, the Translational Research Facility and Innovation Central. The Translational Research Facility will be home to two institutes with expertise in catalysis and compound semiconductors, while Innovation Central will concentrate on support for start-up companies and developing solutions to societal problems.

Bright, spacious atriums with bold lines, geometric features and bright colour schemes stand out at the Innovation Campus buildings, showing that practical doesn’t have to mean boring. As much of the research involves collaboration with industry professionals, the space needs to be “a popular, busy and vibrant workspace that our partners will want to use,” explains Professor Karen Holford, Cardiff University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor. “We want the Campus to have the flow of people and ideas you need for great innovation.”

With this in mind, the designs show a balance of space for specialist equipment alongside areas for students, staff and industry partners to mix. “It’s exciting to be designing facilities that are internationally unique,” says Holford. “Creating the world’s first Social Science Research Park means we are setting a template for others to follow.” 

Developing designs

When building and refurbishing facilities, how can universities ensure they balance form and function correctly? 

Student consultation: Warren says LCoM usually consults with students, by running focus groups and similar initiatives to see what users need from a space. “Consultation with students is critical,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure that what we do is value for money, and not glitzy. You’ve got to balance that very carefully.” The Venue was very much driven by student and visitor requirements and a desire to improve the customer experience. However, because the college is a tenant of that particular building, this time the development was planned with the architects and the landlord, rather than students.

Birmingham City University has thoroughly involved students throughout the development of its new Curzon B extension, with construction degree students working alongside contractors Wilmott Dixon on the project. The six-storey building will be used by business, law and social sciences students and includes a large space for social learning, which staff and students named the Hive. There’s also a group working lecture theatre where 120 students can work in groups of five, sitting over three tiers with a view of presentations being shown on four large screens. Plus there’s an IT suite and rooms for postgraduate students. The ideas for the innovative learning spaces and social areas were partly as a result of discussions with students, to find out how they like to study and the kind of spaces they needed.

Usage studies: As well as consulting with students, universities such as the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), are taking advantage of technology that can help them to quantify their development needs. UTS worked with Axiomatic Technology to monitor how well its existing lecture theatres and classrooms were being used. Ceiling-mounted thermal imaging technology counted people in different rooms, and software compared the actual usage of the rooms with bookings and timetabling. This gave UTS a clear picture of how the university spaces were being used, and where space was wasted. UTS used this information to decide against building an unnecessary new lecture theatre, saving money. It also saved energy by turning off air conditioning in rooms that weren’t in use.


Similarly, as Cardiff University planned its Innovation Campus, a people movement study was commissioned with a particular focus on the potential for promoting the unexpected interactions needed for innovation.

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